Norman Mailer is the Hamlet of American Letters. A hipsterized Hamlet to sure, but Hamlet nonetheless. Throughout these papers, striking assorted poses, he patrols an Existentialist Elsinore where King Jack and Queen Jacqueline rule. Like Hamlet he throws off the Royal Act (finishing that novel, producing that play). Hamlet had his Romantic Ego, Mailer his Challenger Complex. Commenting on the contemporary scene he tosses everything and everybody into the ring: B-film dramatics, punchdrunk dialectics, padded muscles, genius out-of-joint. Set to capture the conscience of the Age, like Hamlet he too has a Message; its illustrations are many (Liberal Totalitarianism, Cancer, Drugs, Cold War, Sex), its names up-to-the-minute (the K's, the Mob, Genet, Castro, Liston). It's essentially thus: the Modern World is losing its Id. But like Hamlet's psychodrama, Mailer is forever testing himself here so he won't have to test himself there or vice versa. The Literary Racket, which of course he rants over, is his Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. The Court is the Establishment: he puts down, they pick him up by Talking About him, by thinking him Not Quite Sane, by fondling him as a Our Bum. And as with Hamlet, we're never sure he doesn't love it. The Ghost is Papa Hemingway. Ophelia is the use he keeps deserting. The only real successes here are Time & Being, Belly, and some parts of 10,000. They're pretty much fiction; the rest is "fact". And with fact Mailer at his best is like Hamlet at his worst: sophomoric without being soporific. From anyone else, as reportage his sociocultural cacciatore might seem superlative stuff. For him it's self-slaughter. Mailer had better polish his princely talents in the Kingdom of the Imagination, or he's through. And there will be no Fortinbras to sing the rites of war. (The original subtitle: The Murder of Good Ideas).